Rita Dove’s Collected Poems: 1974 to 2004 (Norton, $39.95) reminds readers why she is one of the nation’s most respected literary figures, with honors including two years as U.S. poet laureate, a National Humanities Medal and a National Medal of Arts. Fans will enjoy a fresh encounter with Dove’s best work, such as the exquisite “Grace Notes,” where simple memories are transformed into lyrical gems, and the movielike narrative in “Thomas and Beulah,” which juxtaposes war and civil rights struggles with the experiences of her maternal grandparents. The latter won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize and cemented Dove’s reputation as a writer who masterfully balances narrative and poetic finesse. Even the earliest work here shows a tremendous capacity for conveying various voices, from a Colonial Boston slave, to the Snow King, to Catherine of Alexandria. Later books, such as “On the Bus With Rosa Parks” and “American Smooth,” point to the intersection of individual lives and our shared cultural heritage. Dove has often been praised, rightly so, for making all of this look easy, as she does throughout this essential collection and in these concluding lines from “Lady Freedom Among Us”:
don’t think you can ever forget her
don’t even try
she’s not going to budge
no choice but to grant her space
crown her with sky
for she is one of the many
and she is each of us
Rapture (Graywolf; paperback, $16), by Sjohnna McCray, is a stunning debut that won the Walt Whitman Award from the Academy of American Poets. The collection, which springs from McCray’s experience as the son of a Vietnam veteran and a Korean “comfort woman,” is deeply moving and original. As the poems show, both parents were harmed by their experiences, and both brought ghosts into their marriage and family life in the United States. Yet as the speaker shares their histories, he displays a tender compassion that makes the work feel hopeful. In “How to Move,” for example, he considers his father’s amputated leg and a robin dying in the driveway. The latter seems driven by some unseen force: “Maybe/ the desire is to show us how to move,/” he muses. “When we are at home,/ my brother takes the stump in his arms/ holds on to it like a prize or an unexpected gift/ that father has given us.” That same empathy shapes sonorous poems about the speaker’s mother, “a woman whose country leaves her/ with only scarves.” In the end, he makes peace with the limitations and the DNA he received from his family. A loving partner also helps him assert the one thing he refuses to do: “yield/ back into being singular.”
Karen Leona Anderson’s second collection, Receipt (Milkweed; paperback, $16), may permanently alter the way you read a cookbook. In the opening pages, Anderson titles her poems after simple ingredients and sweet-sounding concoctions, such as “Asparagus,” “Gingerbread ” and “Crown of Glory Frosting.” These pieces cleverly suggest how culinary ideals — and saccharine mores — promise success in love and life yet constrict people instead. Some recipes whitewash dark realities about economic hardships, women’s limited choices or the pain of failed relationships. Others simply demand too much effort, as in the poem “Caramel Cake,” whose speaker admires a pot of hot sugar with bubbles “loose as change,” yet admits, a few stanzas later, “I know I said I’d watch this pot all day, but I can’t./ Not worth my time.” Paper receipts represent a different kind of entrapment, as people try to buy worth and beauty but end up with debt and a lingering emptiness because we are “consumed wherever we go/ without gusto and without/ disgust, also.” Still, speaker after speaker continues to seek a sense of belonging, home and transcendence through possessions. The book’s last section is particularly poignant, as retirees realize: “We stalk the dead mall: Leaks/ Galore, Bare Ruined Racks, Etcetera,” and a self-proclaimed materialist finds freedom as people purchase pieces of her estate. Our consumer culture isn’t pretty, as Anderson reminds us, yet her writing is so deft and insightful that the work is resonant and witty.
Elizabeth Lund reviews poetry every month for The Washington Post.